12 Aug The Domestic Hazardous Waste Crisis in India
As COVID-19 has been progressing all over the world, one of the more important topics that is gaining attention is medical waste disposal. In India, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had released a set of guidelines earlier this year for safe and scientific handling, treatment and disposal of biomedical waste generated as part of COVID-19 interventions including testing and treatment at healthcare facilities.
While these guidelines are well-thought of, a big gap presents itself during implementation. With large numbers of asymptomatic-to-mildly symptomatic COVID positive patients quarantining themselves at home, the guidelines for collection and disposal of hazardous waste coming from households are unclear.
Rules Governing Waste Management in India
In India, the handling of biomedical waste is governed by the Biomedical Waste Management Rules 2016. Broadly, these rules state that all biomedical waste has to be autoclaved or incinerated by CPCB authorised facilities. However, household waste is governed by the rules outlined in the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016. These rules divide household waste into dry and wet waste. Wet waste is categorised as any waste that decomposes or degrades by itself. All other waste falls into dry waste according to the rules.
So, all disposable waste including masks, and gloves, and all waste generated by a COVID positive patient including tissues, disposable personal protection equipment, masks, and disposable cutlery technically falls into dry waste.
The city of Bengaluru has a better form of segregation of household waste where the waste is divided into dry, wet and, domestic hazardous waste categories. According to a High Court order of 2015, the city of Bengaluru follows the ‘two bin, one bag’ system for household waste collection. All households are meant to segregate their waste into dry, wet, and domestic hazardous waste streams. Hazardous waste includes sanitary waste, used diapers, broken ceramic and glass, bandages, and other medical sharps.
The “Grey” Area
Shekar Prabhakar is the co-founder & CEO of Hasiru Dala Innovations, a waste management organization in Bengaluru. He describes a grey area while referring to medical waste that is generated at a domestic level. “With respect to biomedical waste generated at medical facilities like hospitals, clinics, pathology labs, the medical staff are trained to dispose of the waste into correct colour-coded bins depending on the nature of the waste. And they are collected by authorized bio-medical waste processors without coming into contact with the waste as they are in sealed bags that directly go for incineration or autoclaving. The grey area is for hazardous waste that is generated from a non-medical facility, which is households by and large”, says Shekar.
“Currently, according to the instructions by Karnataka Pollution Control Board, all hazardous waste generated by COVID-infected households are meant to be collected by a biomedical waste handling facility. However, through our work, we have heard that this is not going as per plan owing to lack of response from the (biomedical waste handling) facilities, and high cost of the collection”, he adds.
Owing to unclear and ambiguous rules, and operational difficulties, most households across India currently continue to dispose of hazardous waste along with other dry waste, which comes in contact with the hands of waste collectors, waste pickers and dry waste sorters, and eventually goes into an unscientifically managed landfill or illegally burnt.
The United Nations Environment Programme alerts everyone to the hazards of such unscientific disposal in its guidelines for waste management during COVID-19. The guideline states – “When not managed soundly, infected medical waste could be subject to uncontrolled dumping, leading to public health risks, and to open burning or uncontrolled incineration, leading to the release of toxins in the environment and to secondary transmission of diseases to humans. Other wastes can reach water sources and add to riverine and marine pollution.”
The Way Forward
“A better way to deal with the crisis at this point, in the absence of bio-medical waste processors, being able to handle it, would be to urge all COVID infected households to segregate the hazardous waste and store it in sealed bags for 72 hours before handing it over to the waste collector, to significantly minimize the risk of transmission”, says Shekar. This guideline has been reiterated across the global waste community. Using two waste containers in rotation would help in keeping waste at home for 72 hours. Other recommendations include segregating waste into dry, wet, and hazardous waste categories, along with reducing the amount of waste that goes out of your house by composting wet waste, and reusing dry waste as much as possible.
Shekar insists that we should take this time to figure out how to resolve the domestic hazardous waste problem. “COVID-19 has thrown a lacuna in our thinking around what is domestic hazardous waste and how it should be treated”, he says. While COVID-19 is making us think about the state of hazardous waste, it is important to note that households have been generating this waste for a long time. With increased home-based medical care, waste collectors have been collecting needles and syringes as part of dry waste from households.
“We need to think through the entire chain of generation, collection, and disposal of hazardous waste to make the process simple to execute, cost-effective, and safe for everyone”, says Shekar.